I was on holiday last week, a proper time-off holiday in a sunny part of Spain.
My parents have moved to the Costa del Sol for work, Matthieu came too. So it was a family holiday, albeit one which involved a substantial amount of remote working on Matthieu’s part.
The airport is dotted with billboards from the promotional organ of the Málaga tourism board; you’re greeted with photos of gorgeous beaches, illustrating the official tagline “it’s warm here”. Which it is. At least warm enough to make you think twice about coming to a notoriously hot part of Spain during a heatwave.1
This kind of heat is new to me, the kind which you feel as a generally uncomfortable ambient temperature, rather than direct from the sun. You can’t deal with it just by staying in the shade because the air itself is warm. Open a window and instead of a cool breeze it feels like getting blasted by a hot hairdryer.
I am fascinated by the ancient systems of irrigation which made life possible in desert conditions. The Nazarí palace has shaded courtyards lined with tiles and open channels of running water which cool down the air, a surprisingly effective form of low-tech air conditioning. Medieval Spaniards built towers with windows and internal rooms designed remain cool in the hottest months.
That all makes it hard to understand how the newer areas of the city are not at all built for a hot environment. There’s a lot of sticky tarmac, flat walls, few trees and no shade. The office buildings and shopping centres are air conditioned.
Matthieu has a tendency to ask quite perceptive questions about sustainability, he said Málaga is like the European Dubai, in the sense that it feels slightly fragile. As in, parts of the Costa del Sol are clearly reliant on tourism, and it seems a tough challenge in a climate like this to meet the needs of the tourist population in addition to everyone else.
David Harvey talks about “mindless urbanisation”, which I think applies to wide parts of the Costa del Sol.
A lot of what’s going on with urbanisation going on right now doesn’t contribute to anybody’s wellbeing. It’s not as if it’s about affordable housing and making decent schools and hospitals and all those kinds of things… the facilities you need. No, it’s about building spectacular shopping malls and consumer palaces and big sports stadiums. In other words what we’re looking at is the reshaping of urbanisation by fixed capital formation, which is designed to counter the falling rate of profit by creating forms of consumption which do not increase the social productivity of labour.
Peter showed us the Limonar Garden development, after walking up Mount Victoria.
There are curious empty spaces all around the old city, vacant lots where buildings once stood. Spaces caught somewhere between demolition and redevelopment.
There was clearly once a building on the right of this alleyway, now just a crude wall made of breeze blocks.
Some of these look like the exposed remains of interior courtyards.
I was excitedly sending these to my colleague at the university who studies façadism – where building interiors are demolished and only the exterior front-facing façade remains. There are examples of façadism everywhere; if you walk past a door or a window boarded up, have a nosy peek through the cracks and you’ll often see these demolished empty spaces on the other side.
One day I went for a little excursion on the train to see Torremolinos, the most obviously touristy part of the Costa del Sol.
Stepping straight out of the station you see Nogalera square has a Poundland and a Burger King.
Torremolinos is a prime destination if you need sunglasses, flip flops, bright pink handbags, bikinis, beady necklaces, funny t-shirts, towels with the word ‘Spain’ written on them…
This woman was apparently selling little buddha statues.
The area still gives off the eerie placelessness you get from leisure resorts, but also, it’s not quite as bad as Magaluf.
Torremolinos is visited by a different kind of tourist, older British people who’ve invested in seaside apartments. They shuffle between the beach and the pool, occasionally making a trip out to the massive well-watered golf course near the airport. They’re not as committed to the exciting combination of sunstroke and alcohol poisoning which attracts younger weekend-break ravers.
Torremolinos has some normal town elements, for example just beside the path down to the beach there is the church of St. Michael. Not just a church building, a proper church still very much in use as a site of worship. There is a library, and further from the beach, a college.
The eponymous tower of Molinos looks small in comparison to these seafront tower blocks. There’s a good metaphor in there somewhere.
Caminito del Rey
On Bastille day everyone had a day off, so we went north on the train to walk along the Caminito del Rey.
Matthieu and me both took photos at the Guadalhorce reservoir.
There were noisy crickets in the forest on the way there.
Unfortunately, when we got to the entrance of the Caminito, they’d run out of tickets for people turning up on the day. So, we diverted back up the short road back to the reservoir, stopping to eat halfway up the way to the Pico del Convento.
And then we rushed back to El Churro station for the 2pm train.
On the train I tried some Bitter Kas, a soft drink made with gentian root. I’m not sure what else I was expecting, it was indeed bitter, and kind of unpleasant. Not recommended.
I went round the market and tried to take some colourful photos of the fruits.
I must have got the exposure off here because the scene came out looking far more gloomy than I was expecting.
There is a path running through the gardens of Puerta Oscura2 on the southern edge of the palace. Cats gather on the sides of the path in the evenings, they seem semi-feral, but also well-fed and groomed enough that someone has to be taking care of them. 🐱
I liked the brickwork around these windows.
One morning I went to go see the port with Christine. Here are some boats.
Houses dotting the urban hillside north-east of Gibralfaro.
The big mountain in the distance is Monte San Antón.
Here is Matthieu on the castle.
Peter and Christine resting in the Alcazaba.
There were posters all over advertising a comic book exhibition in the lower level of the Aurora shopping mall. There were these life-size statues of Marvel heroes, along with glass display cases full of comic book paraphenalia.
The exhibition was obviously paying homage to works of fiction, although I’m aware of how the Disney-Marvel-Lucasarts storytelling universe already skirts too close to a belief system for some people. You get the statues of the Virgin Mary in the churches, and the statues of Captain America in the shopping mall. Everyone gets their own gods and heroes.
The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Málaga, Santa María de la Victoria. In a culturally insensitive coincidence there’s a branch of Victoria’s Secret prominently located on the corner of Constitution Square.
The little plastic figurines hanging above the street here were done by the sculptor Chema Lumbreras.
I might have been lucky enough to visit during the tourist season, in a period where there weren’t actually too many tourists.3 The old city reveals a surprising amount of public space in the form of mini-squares and little alleyways to explore. I got time to pursue some of my own fun projects, spend long afternoons drifting through the art museums, sit in cafes. In brief, I had a relaxing holiday.
Travel during Covid-19
Travelling to Spain was not easy, very stressful, and comes with big warnings.
The entry rules for Spain specified a PCR test4 48 hours in advance of arrival in Spain. You can’t check-in without showing a negative test result, so in reality the result needs to be ready for your departure from the UK, several hours before arrival in Spain. That’s already an impossible situation because most testing centres in the UK take 48 hours to deliver a result. I got a PCR test ‘two days’ ahead of the flight, which was declared technically out of date by the check-in staff at the airport. They suggested I pay for a rapid lateral flow test in the departures terminal, and only after that was I allowed to have a boarding pass. Someone must be making a lot of money off these tests.
Several budget airlines cancelled or rescheduled direct flights to Spain in protest at travel restrictions and/or lost profits. So, I had to take a KLM flight to Spain via Amsterdam. Inside Schiphol airport there is an internal border where you cross over to flights within the Schengen Zone. At this internal border everyone with a UK passport was being pulled out and stopped. This was super obvious when a flight arrived from Glasgow and you could see everyone being taken aside for questioning.
The border guards explained to me the policy was that nobody from the UK was allowed past that frontier unless for essential travel. Going to visit family in Spain is, of course, non-essential.
I talked with a person from Glasgow who was going to Rome. She was crying. She’d been detained long enough that her onward connection to Italy had passed. There was another person on that Glasgow flight going to Vienna. She’d been fully vaccinated, she had two tests, she was showing me the Austrian government website which clearly states that British citizens are allowed to enter, provided they have been tested and vaccinated. She did not cry, but she was close.
This was my first proper experience of Frontex, the agency protecting the Schengen Area’s external border. The guard explained to the second woman: you are not going to Austria, you are entering the Schengen Area, and the Schengen Area is closed.
Europe is open,
Europe is a fortress.
I was questioned in a little windowless room, and spent the entirety of my transit time in immigration control. Just under four hours.
Eventually, after proving my French citizenship, I was allowed to leave and carry on to the gate. On arrival in Málaga airport nobody checked my passport. There was a Covid health check, someone in medical overalls scanned my travel authorisation, asked what country I was from, and waved me through. They didn’t ask to see proof of any test result.
I walked straight out of the terminal into the stuffy evening air, and waited for a bus into the city.
For the background, Puerta Oscura means ‘dark gate’, I guess named after a shady gate somewhere nearby. The gardens were designed by Fernando Guerrero-Strachan Rosado in 1937. ↩
For extra confusion, the Spanish government website refers all over to a NAAT test. This is simply another name for a PCR test. ↩